It's a Mystery (Part I): Dysfunctional Behaviour and the Pagan Scene.
Article ID: 10091
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Sia@FullCircle [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: September 4th. 2005
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It's A Mystery
A large number of Pagans who were once active in our community have recently gone back underground. They tell us that they have stopped going to events or have left established groups because they are tired of the drama and trauma they find there. Others are "burned out" from years of service and need rest. Thus, in many places, we have once again become a "mystery religion". By this I mean that you really have to know someone, get lucky, or search very hard to find good groups or teachers. In fact, many experienced Pagans now prefer to circle only with those people they have known and trusted for years. Many open circles have closed, many groups are disbanding, and many a good event has been canceled. Ask Pagan people why this is, and you'll be told that the "Problem Children" have spoiled the community for them. Just recently, a Pagan parent called me to bemoan the lack of trustworthy, reliable, grown-ups among us. To this I replied, "It helps to understand that we really are a mystery religion. The mystery is how we ever find any other healthy, functional Pagans." That made her laugh, she knows how it is.
Fritz Jung, co-founder of The Witches' Voice, recently commented on this issue at their web page. He wrote:
"Over the past few years, some of the most giving and honorable Pagans we know have bowed out gracefully from our community. To say this is a tragedy would be an understatement. It's never a 'dramatic departure' with this type... They simply stopped helping out. Many speak of 'burn out' and we sure hear that... Personally, we no longer give any energy to those looking to pick fights or with a bitch/zero solution agenda." (1)
If we are looking at a trend, and I think we are, then we have to ask ourselves:
1. What caused this problem and,
2. What is the solution?
Part I of this essay addresses the problem. Part II (coming soon) addresses the solution.
How Dysfunctional Energy Can Harm a Circle:
"If it's not one thing, it's your mother"
A Pagan counselor named Anodea Judith notes in her essay titled Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Dysfunctional Families and Group Energy that many Pagans come from dysfunctional families. If they have not done the work to heal the wounds from their childhood, Judith writes, they can bring their dysfunctional family energy into any circle or group they attend. The question here is not "Do we have emotional baggage?" for whom among us does not? Rather, the issue is, "Do we choose to heal?" Some of us do choose to become stronger, wiser, and more empowered. Many, sadly, do not (2).
What Newcomers Find:
"Stars are easy. People are hard"
- Terry Pratchett
Too often newcomers enter the Pagan circle hoping to find a group of superior beings. What they really find, if they are lucky, is a group of pretty-nice-people-on-the-path. We are human. We have flaws. That's as it should be. In some cases, though, what a newcomer finds is far more troubling and unhealthy. Many a trusting person has been sucked into a dysfunctional Pagan group and come out of it abused, burned out, or disillusioned. This problem needs to be addressed on both the individual and the tribal levels. As individuals, we must develop and support healthy boundaries and our groups need to establish responsible, effective ways to deal with the abusers who lurk among us. (3)
The Fallout from Dysfunctional Groups & Teachers:
"Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything."
- Alexander Hamilton
The irony is that dysfunctional Pagan groups can go on and on and on while many functional groups have disbanded, often from sheer exhaustion. As my friend Chronic says: There's a natural law at work here: "Entropy Requires No Maintenance". By this she means that dysfunctional groups (and leaders) do not have to work nearly as hard as the functional ones do. They do not have to learn from their mistakes, they do not solve problems and they do not grow, either spiritually or emotionally. They are forever "in crisis, " unable to handle conflict productively, and unconsciously driven by their "Shadow Sides". People don't leave such groups and teachers; they escape.
When dysfunctional groups "burn out" the old members they simply find fresh, new victims to abuse. If one individual has really fouled the Pagan nest, they often leave an area where they are too well known in order to look for more victims, elsewhere.
I've developed a speech I give to the newcomers. It goes like this:
"Remember that 1 out of every 50 Pagans you meet will be someone you'll want to know better. 1 out of every 100 will be someone you'll trust enough to circle with, and 1 out of every 300 will be True Tribe for you. Happy hunting." (4)
"It's been fun, but I have to scream now."
There are three main reasons why Pagan Organizers burn out. The first is overwork and stress. Some of us have to face the fact that we are better at taking care of others than we are at taking care of ourselves. When our Priest/ess work devolves into codependency or workaholic behavior, it does no one any good. In such cases, the Organizer must then take time to reflect, make changes, and heal.
The second main reason Organizers drop out is because they can no longer stand the constant, carping criticism from those among us who do not do the work, but feel entitled to publicly and nastily judge things they wot not of. Finally, most Organizers struggle with the challenge of finding good, responsible volunteers, and training them to do the job well. This is a difficult and never ending task.
The trick to surviving the role of Pagan Organizer is to:
- Do less and laugh more,
- Share the load with some good people when you can,
- Bless and release the other sort,
- Remember that "Criticism is easier than craftsmanship."
- Know when it's time to quit a project and move on to something else.
"This universe is full of magickal things Patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper"
Less healthy people have always used the Pagan Path as:
Their attitude is: "Give me a love spell, but don't ask me to be kinder or more lovable." or "Let's do a prosperity ritual, but don't ask me to acquire new skills or update that resume." This is what the psychologist's call "magical thinking". Magical thinking is an illogical mode of thinking based on fantasy, rather than reality. It is diametrically opposed to real magickal thinking which is what a healthy Pagan does.
- A way to get power without working to earn it.
- A way to rebel.
- A way to get attention.
- A way to play the victim.
- An excuse to own shiny things.
- An excuse to buy shiny things.
- A way to be accepted or trendy.
- Just another chance to play "dress up".
- Entry to a (perceived) sexual smorgasbord.
- A way to feel superior to others; especially people who may have hurt or rejected them in the past.
- A (perceived) justification for bad behavior.
- A way to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.
To understand real magickal thinking we must consider the definition of magick. To quote Starhawk's famous phrase: "Magick is the art of changing consciousness at will." She goes on to state in her book Dreaming The Dark, "because every change we make is a change in a relationship in which we take part, we cannot cause change without changing ourselves." Wise Pagans know this mystery: If we change the world inside, the outside world will change, as well. (You'll notice that it dovetails rather nicely with the definition of recovery.)
Magickal thinking requires we live a life beyond the norm. Such a life involves commitment, self-examination, honesty, and what the Buddhist's call "right action". Have you ever wondered why so many people stay stuck at the first level of Pagan practice (the part with the toys and the clothes)? It's because levels 2, 3, and beyond challenge us to grow.
Paganism and the Sacred Wound:
"Healthy systems value discovery and understanding rather than unquestioning obedience"
- John Cleese
The problem, dear friends, lies not in our Paganism, but in our selves. As psychologist Robin Skynner notes, people interpret religious and spiritual teachings according to their level of mental health. A less healthy person will take a progressive idea (like "Love thy neighbor") and turn it into something far less healthy (for example: The Inquisition). Thus it is possible for a less healthy Pagan to twist the healthy ideas contained within this practice and justify (to themselves, at least) behavior which is unhealthy, abusive, bigoted, or just plain bratty. (5)
It is important to note that a healthy philosophy like Paganism can attract many people who are not yet healthy themselves. It's no criticism to say that many Pagans have what is known among us as a "sacred wound", the same sort of wound carried by mystics and spiritual seekers throughout history. Such wounds are often gained from a painful, lonely childhood or from surviving traumatic or life threatening events. As Carolyn Myss notes in her books Sacred Contracts and Why People Don't Heal and How They Can, many people who carry such wounds are often found on the edges of our society. We Pagans know that place. It is "outside the pale", the hidden spot in the forest where sits the cauldron of change. This is the place where progressive ideas are born and thrive.
Those who bear the wound of "Outsider" are freed from the cultural trance which enthralls so many others who live closer to the center of 'the norm". Outsiders are thus in a unique position to see what is truly meaningful in our culture's way of life, and what is false. If an Outsider is an extrovert, they may do the work in our society that heals both our culture and our planet. These people are courageous and tough; good companions in hard times. If an Outsider is an introvert they are often a quiet force for good among their friends, families, and neighbors and a font of wisdom and good humor for anyone lucky enough to know them. Whatever their social calling may be, these same wounded people are often called to a particular spiritual path in order to heal and to find their True Selves.
However, some wounded people choose not to heal, but instead use their pain as their excuse to avoid taking responsibility for their lives. They live unconsciously, rather than consciously, and the fallout from their choices (choices they will not fully own or examine) affects everyone who knows them. The Gods have sent them a "difficult gift" and they have turned it into a job description.(6) Such Pagan people are full of excuses, and we who accept their excuses are acting as their enablers. This is one reason why Paganism has endured such a troubled adolescence, and why it struggles to come of age and take its rightful place in our culture.
It deserves to have a place of honor. Paganism, as the Reverend Wren Walker points out, is an ideal path for those who are looking for healing, empowerment, and growth. As she states in a groundbreaking essay titled Pagans and Self-Actualization, Paganism is the very place where we can find our Best Self. That's hard work. It's also joyful, empowering, creative and deeply fulfilling and it takes courage and a willingness to change to reach that level.
Common Sense & Simple Courtesy: Why are they so hard to find?
"Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know"
- description of a 19th century cad
Right about this point, someone is going to jump up and yell, "You're being judgmental!" so let's address that issue here and now. Tell me, please, when did becoming Pagan mean we gave up our right to be treated with respect? I didn't give up that right, did you?
Practicing tolerance and being accepting of someone else's culture, lifestyle or belief system does not mean that we have to put up with things like lying, sexual predation, acting out, bigotry, hypocrisy, carelessness, cruelty, selfishness, rudeness, poor planning, self righteousness, lame excuses, neglect, addictive/destructive behavior, nasty gossip, stealing, or temper tantrums. This is nothing more than bad behavior masquerading as magick. Is this the sort of community we want to create?
Ah... but are we a community in the real sense of that word? The definition of a community is a group that involves "friendly association, mutual support, commitment, and dedication to a cause, ideal, or effort." It is not something we "do" just at full moons or at festivals, it is something we live within and support. It is equitable, ongoing, reciprocal, and organic. A functional community is also well mannered. Why? Well, as my colleague Thalassa points out, standards of courtesy and etiquette were originally invented so that we could stand living with other people in close proximity (i.e. in tribes, cities and communities) and thus prevent us from killing one other out of sheer annoyance. Unfortunately, we don't have a Pagan community, let alone a healthy one, and our manners are often deplorable. With the exception of some small neighborhood circles, where love and dedication create a vital group, what we Pagans actually engage in is a "Pagan scene".
A scene is merely a place or event where people come to play for a short time, much like a rave party or a rock concert. Little that is made or done at a scene endures; the experience is all-important. The people who frequent a scene do not support each other as a community does. They do not care for one another in hard times, and they do not build a lasting culture. When they get bored, they leave, and go on to find another scene. (7)
Depending on the emotional health of those involved, a Pagan scene can be the perfect breeding ground for sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Furthermore, many Pagans enter into a very bad bargain when they attend a Pagan scene. If the group they encounter lacks 1) commitment to and between it's members, 2) healthy social standards, and 3) the ability to deal with conflict productively (three things necessary in any functional system), they must resort to dysfunctional bargains in order to gather at all. These unspoken agreements come in the form of a meta message. A meta message is nonverbal information conveyed by the group's behavior. This one is common:
"I want to belong in this group, no matter what; therefore, I will put up with any sort of bad behavior from you and the others here. If I do that, you must put up with bad behavior from me. Do this and you will be accepted by me, and vice versa. If anyone points out that we lack either manners or honor, we will band together and call them "judgmental".
As my role model Granny Weatherwax likes to say "I'm not having it."
Any sane person knows the difference between being judgmental and exercising good judgment. A wise Priest or Priestess is, above all, a person of discernment. Such people will not allow mean spirited, discourteous, arrogant, thoughtless, silly, or neurotic behavior to ruin their circles and events. If they do, they need to turn in their wands. Honestly, folks, it is possible to be so open-minded that your brains leak out, and if our ancestors had been this dim witted, we wouldn't be here today. So, here's to common sense and simple courtesy. May they hold an honored place among us. If not, I, for one, will want to know why.
What To Look For (and Avoid) In Pagan Groups & Teachers:
"There are thousands of good reasons why magic doesn't rule the world. They're called Witches and Wizards."
- Terry Pratchett
I am often asked to give advice about choosing a teacher or joining a circle. I'm a very practical Pagan so I tell newcomers that any Priest/ess worth the name will have their life more or less in balance.
As Pagans we understand "cause and effect" and we know that these laws operate on a holistic level. We pay attention to our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health because we know that imbalance in one area affects the entire system. As we are, so is our practice. Or as the TechnoWitches say: 'Garbage in, garbage out".
If you are looking for a teacher, you'll want to find someone who enjoys balance, and has the kind of life you someday wish to have. Look at their entire life, not just the bit you see presented at the full moon. If you are looking for a circle, you'll want to consider what sort of energy they project and attract. Ask yourself if you really wish to mix with that energy.
Here are some other things to consider when choosing a group or a teacher:
Trust your gut, and don't do things you aren't comfortable doing. Above all, use good judgment when you seek to learn.
- Is their life harmonious or do they live from crisis to crisis? If their life is in constant chaos, just how good do you think their magick is?
- Can they sustain healthy relationships? If their emotional life is burdened by resentments, betrayal, abuse, anger or codependency, then what will their relations with others in the group (or their chosen deities) be like?
- Can they handle money responsibly? If not, what can they teach you about abundance and prosperity? If the group works out of a perpetual "sense of lack" or if they fear the responsibility that abundance brings, what sort of energy will they attract? The issue here is not how much money a person makes, but how well they manage their resources.
- Are they secure in themselves or insecure? Can they share power appropriately or do they have too many control issues? Or, are they the helpless type? If so, they'll want someone to come to their rescue. If they refuse to address the issue of power honestly, the circle will remain unbalanced and out of tune.
- Are they responsible? Are they someone you can count on? If not, they could let everyone down at the worst possible moment. If they are the classic "flaky Pagan" they will be good at avoiding responsibility or they will get others to do the work for them. If you play this game, you are limiting their growth, and hurting yourself.
- Do they know how to nurture themselves? If not, they will eventually burn out from the Three Pagan Demons: Stress, Mess, and Excess. Since misery loves company, they might resent (or even sabotage) any attempts you make to become happier, healthier, and more balanced.
- Are they a source of negative or positive energy? If they whine, rage, play the victim/martyr, spread gossip, or complain all the time, you have your answer.
- Can they communicate well with others? Can they resolve conflicts with fairness and civility? If not, the circle could be rife with unspoken resentments, passive aggressive behavior, and negative energy.
- Do they have healthy personal boundaries and respect the boundaries of others? If not, the circle is at risk for sexual abuse, codependent enmeshment, and a host of other problems.
- Do they influence others for better or for worse? Look at their former students and circle members to see if they are actually better for knowing them. Have these people been challenged to change and grow? Are they more insightful, empowered, and happier as a result of their work together or are they stuck in place? Has their spiritual practice deepened and matured over time? If not, why not?
- Do they treat their practice with the respect it deserves? Check to see if their rituals are chronically late or ill prepared. If so, it is a sign of disrespect towards the circle members and the deities they serve. If your group puts up with this, they might need to do a little less magick, and lot more work on their self-esteem.
- Are they trustworthy? Don't rely solely on their claims; ask around. Pay less attention to what these people say and a lot more to what they actually do. Remember that trust is not given blindly. Trust must be earned.
- Are they conscious of their own emotional issues, and working to become healthier, overall? The truth is that we all have emotional burdens to bear. All we can ask of other human beings is that they become aware of their issues and do the necessary work to heal. However, it is not acceptable for circle mates or teachers to inflict their problems on other people. Offering mutual support to each other is a good thing. Asking you to carry their burdens for them is quite another. If they try to engage you in their drama and trauma, walk away.
- Are they Learners or Posers? Healthy Pagans are willing to learn from others and from their own mistakes. They know the crucial difference between making a mistake and being a mistake. They don't let their ego get in the way of learning. If they "miss the mark", they make amends, and move forward bearing new wisdom. Posers only care about looking good, and they love to blame others for their problems. Which sort of person will your God/ess respect?
- Are they creative? Can they help you to be more creative, as well? Or do they confuse being an artist with being immature? If so, they'll want to be the Artiste with "the vision" and have someone else do all the work.
- Do they know the difference between "deep play" and acting out? If not, your rituals will be a lot less about personal expression and divine inspiration, and a lot more like bad theatre.
- Are they compassionate and kind? If a Priest or Priestess isn't good to their kids or if they neglect any animals in their care, leave that circle immediately. (If you witness actual abuse contact the authorities on your way out the door. Ethically speaking, you may not leave another being in harm's way without trying to do something about it. Take spiritual and legal counsel, if necessary, and proceed with caution, but do the right thing. Who knows? You may have been sent there for just that reason.)
- Do they honor their word, their partner(s), and their friends? If not, they are asking for a karmic kick in the butt. Get out before that happens.
It's important to remember that some people come to Paganism wanting power; power they aren't ready to use, either fairly or well. If they achieve authority among us without having the wisdom to temper their use of power they will then go on to abuse others. If we allow this, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The Magick Within:
"Freedom is useless if we don't exercise it as characters making choices (and) few things are as encouraging as the realization that things can be different and that we have a role in making them so." - Daniel Taylor
It is well known among us that the positive attracts the positive while the negative attracts the negative. The trick is not to find a magickal Circle that will take us in, make us feel special or somehow "fix" us. Rather, our challenge is to create our Best Self and to bring that self into Circle with others of like energy, to give as much as we receive.
A healthy Circle is a place in which each person is committed to their Highest Good, to the good of the Circle, and to the community as a whole. So if we want true friends, worthy partners, and magickal rituals, the best way to attract these is to create positive change within. Then we will find the tools we need to make the best possible magick, the kind that works for the good of all.
Wishing you strength, love and laughter,
Many Thanks: The following people contributed their insights and experience to this essay: Ashli S. ("scenes" and how they operate), Fritz J. (healthy requirements for groups & teachers), Lynn W. (introverts, extroverts and mystics), Rowan F. (community work & cooperation), Snakemoon (creativity, ritual work & practical Paganism), Thalassa P. (real world courtesy & manners). I am deeply grateful for their generosity and for the long, fascinating conversations via phone, in person and by email which made this essay possible. Any errors herein are mine and mine, alone.
(1) It should be noted that these problems are not unique to us. My Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Native American friends can all tell the same kinds of stories.
(2) If you are recovering from a dysfunctional family or this very dysfunctional Culture, then read anything by John Bradshaw especially John Bradshaw On The Family. See also The Spiral Steps website and check out the cyber support group.
(3) Part of the problem is this ideal we have of "Perfect love and perfect trust". This concept is neither healthy, nor functional. Perfectionism is an idea we inherited from Judeo/Christian culture and it engenders nothing more than shame and guilt. It's important to remember that real trust is earned and that love is only worthwhile if it is given freely. By the way, if I wanted to set up a system by which naive people are conned, I couldn't ask for a better mantra to give them. It's time we Pagans stopped behaving like "marks" at a fair, and put our thinking caps back on.
(4) Your mileage may vary.
(5) From the book Life and How to Survive It by Robin Skynner & John Cleese.
(6) I've seen people rise above great harm done to them in childhood. I've been privilege to witness them let go and move forward, choosing to live their lives free of resentments, pain, and fear. On the other hand, I've seen others take a single hit in adulthood and become so bitter and obsessed by it that their very breath infects the air. Not everyone recovers from the harms and shocks of life. Recovery depends, in part; on what kind of support systems, therapy, and medical care we have available to us. It also depends on our willingness to heal. Some survivors of poverty, sexual abuse, and physical abuse rise up to become powerful, loving forces of nature while people with seemingly easier burdens to bear choose not to cope. I am humbled by witnessing the one sort of life, and saddened by the fact of the other. I, myself, am both a particle and a wave; I can be a particle of light on the one hand, or a wave of destruction on the other. I have tried, not always successfully, to choose the path that is positive. I also have a choice, as Priestess, as to which sort of energy I let into my Circle. I would a rather walk my path, side by side, with someone who is struggling, like me, to find the way, then try and carry another person will not walk on their own two feet.
(7) Some exceptions to this lack of any real Pagan community can be found among a small number of well-run Pagan festivals, groups and events, often as not, among the dedicated volunteers. These folks tend to be funny, tough minded survivors, the kind of people you'll also find working in a MASH unit or teaching kids or working in the theatre; you'll find them pretty much any place that requires both practical talent and true grit. For a detailed discussion of this subject, read Professor Sarah Pike's insightful anthropological study titled "People of the Earth".
Copyright: We've had many requests asking for permission to reproduce this essay from various other websites, print publications and zines. I'm very glad that this essay is proving to be of service and provoking discussion. It seems to have struck a chord. Thank you all for asking, however, I cannot give permission to reproduce this essay as it is part of a series which has been (legally and contractually) promised elsewhere.
Ironically, some Pagans are so eager to disseminate an essay on bad behavior that they have stolen my words and posted them verbatim on their own sites or to various newsgroups! The worst abusers don't even list the author. So my (Pagan) attorney has spent his time this week reminding certain people about copyright laws and karma.
This article, and everything else on this website has copyright protection (see the copyright notice at the bottom of each page of the site). No part of it may be reproduced without the author's express, written permission. However, if you wish to post a link from your site or newsgroup to the Full Circle newsletter where this article is posted, you are very welcome to do so, and you have my thanks.
My thanks also go out to those who did post links around the web to this issue so that others could read this piece, and to all those good people who wrote such constructive and thoughtful letters to us re same.
Thank you all in advance for honoring original Pagan content and copyright.
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